Angels Are Made of Light
Director/ James Longley
Watched in theaters
Three school-age brothers are the main characters in James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light, but you wouldn’t know they are brothers from watching the film. You also wouldn’t know that one of the teachers in the school they attend is their mother. Even though one of the kids calls the teacher “Mother” it comes across as a way of referring to all female teachers, or at least that’s the impression I got. I also got the impression that one of the kids works at a tin salvage shop owned by his father (at least I think that’s his father, perennially bent over a hammer) but I didn’t realize that he is the father to all three boys.
I only learned this information from other film reviews I’ve read, which were presumably written by critics after seeing the film in festivals, where they no doubt had access to publicity background material or gained the information from statements by the director. The nine people in the theater where I saw the film were, like me, pretty much in the dark.
But, here’s the odd thing: The fact that we were watching members of a family turned out to be completely irrelevant. We never see them together as a family. We don’t see the boys in any sort of brotherly group or engaging in a familiar conversation. We don’t see them with their mother and father in a familial setting. One can only infer that Longley was not in the least bit interested in their history or dynamic as a family. If so, then why did he focus on the three brothers? Why not three kids with different experiences and backgrounds? There are other kids in the movie, and adults, but none of them comment on or have any relationship with the family. Why? My only answer, after seeing this frustrating, confusing, affected documentary is: Who knows?
Angels Are Made of Light is by turns muddled and fascinating, gorgeous and interminable. Filmed by Longley in a school in Kabul over three years, from 2011 to 2014, the movie is meant to immerse us in the pre-teen lives of boys who face unpromising futures. Most of their education seems to involve learning and quoting the Koran, with a few English language courses thrown in. They may want to study computers, but there doesn’t seem to be a computer in sight. The adults in their lives expect little of the kids, and what they learn of their country’s history is a depressing litany of power struggles, revolutions, and occupying armies.
Longley successfully conveys this dispiriting reality of limited possibilities, but he also limits our own emotional investment in these kids’ stunted horizons. He conducted lengthy interviews with the boys, teachers, and even one young girl, and he edits their voice-over responses to a continuous stream of luxurious images: Faces composed in profile against dusty light. Crowded frames of market stalls and motorbikes. Scenes of snow and rainstorms. These images are beautiful, but they bear little connection to the words spoken by the characters; words which reveal nothing specific about the person speaking. Out of thousands of pages of transcription and hundreds of hours of video footage, all we get are repetitive platitudes and rote bus card aphorisms. Nearly all of these soundbites are accompanied by swells of music, which sound both lovely and overbearing, meant to suggest a subtle profundity the words themselves don’t live up to. This insistent device only induces drowsiness. Most of the time we can’t even be sure who is talking, as Longley cuts from face to face and place to place without any interest in creating a meaningful sequence.
This same technique was on display in his last film, Iraq in Fragments, but he worked with fewer people, and he divided that film into sections, which helped locate us in the narrative. That movie also had a sense of urgency and danger that is lacking here, despite the pervading sense that the next suicide bombing or Taliban offensive is possible at any moment. Iraq in Fragments was released 13 years ago, and Longley had at least one false start on his next film before this one came along. But after three years of shooting and four-plus years of editing (on a budget of more than a million dollars, thanks partially to the filmmaker’s MacArthur Genius award), the film feels like both too much and too little. Too much footage, too little substance.
The sections that do work offer an archival primer on Afghanistan’s recent history. The black-and-white file footage shows us Kabul when it was a secular, welcoming oasis in the ‘70s, before tribal rivalries, the Mujahidin, the Taliban, the Russians and the Americans stranded the proud country in what looks like a permanent state of war, fundamentalism, and poverty. An older male teacher at the boys’ school narrates over these historical episodes, and we come to understand the hopelessness felt by the children.
There is also a riveting sequence of Islamist die-hards whipping their naked torsos with chains in a public display of self-flagellation. An election is also carried out, with most of the population cynical about the outcome before the first vote is counted. These scenes contain a drama and purpose the rest of the film lacks. I kept wondering why Longley took so long to make this film, since the passage of time seems to have no purpose. In fact, since Longley is immune to any sort of onscreen text that might help us out, one can never be sure where we are, who we’re looking at, or what time of day or month or season it is.
Angels Are Made of Light has been compared to the work of Terrence Malick, but this is barely supportable. Malick has committed his share of airy pretensions, but the interiority of his voice-overs is always connected to specific characters, reflecting on narrative-driven desires. There is always a through-line that survives his distancing arias of swirling cameras, high-minded musings, and abstract smash edits. Granted, Longley may not be asking to be compared to Malick, who dwells in fiction, and no one can deny that the director has a keen eye and a commitment to his subject mater–but this movie demonstrates what can happen when a documentary filmmaker with too much time and money on their hands combines access and a gritty location with a self-congratulatory style. The results look and feel like something important is being rendered, but beyond a kind of immersive travelogue feel to the visuals, there is very little in this film that will be memorable.